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Google tracks location even if setting disabled

26 November 2017

Regulators in South Korea summoned Google representatives this week to question them about a report that claimed the company was collecting data from Android devices even when location services were disabled.

"It seems quite intrusive for Google to be collecting such information that is only relevant to carrier networks when there are no SIM card or enabled services", Matthew Hickey, a security expert and researcher, told media in London.

A Quartz report earlier this week revealed that Android phones collect nearby cell tower addresses and send that information to Google even when the user has location tracking turned off. While it is based on the Cell ID technology that allows Google to calculate the location of a smartphone user even off Global Positioning System and remove the SIM card.

In January of 2017, Google said it started investigation the use of Cell ID codes as another signal to continue improving on the performance and speed of message delivery. However, if an Android device were to be stolen, it could end up compromising the cell tower data.

Google says that the data had been collected to improve its message and notifications delivery, and had not been stored on servers at Google. "However, we had never integrated the user's Cell ID data into our network sync system, so that the collected data was immediately destroyed, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID".

Google tracks location even if setting disabled

With user location data, cell towers could be used to triangulate location to around a quarter-mile radius, and even closer in urban areas where cell towers are closer together. The only way to stop it would be possible only when Google make changes to Android.

Organizations by law must be transparent with consumers relative to what they do with personal data, said a spokesperson from the UK's Information Commissioner's Office.

With privacy concerns raising alarm bells over the past year with many prominent hacking incidents, the last thing you want is for smartphones to track your device's location even when you don't give it permission to.

An official investigation has not yet been launched, and more information will likely need to come from Google's USA headquarters, Hwang said.

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Google tracks location even if setting disabled